George Mackay Brown – centenary art work and poetry installation

George Mackay Brown – centenary artwork commission

Summer 2021

The chance of working in creative partnership to develop a unique celebration of the centenary of George Mackay Brown was one I could not pass up. Even though it was the summer holidays after a turbulent lockdown year, and I was finally able to visit family and friends in the south, I just couldn’t walk away from the chance to apply for the public art commission funded by Orkney Islands Council Culture Fund and Arts Development Service. It was a chance to be directly involved in commemorating an author who has gained more and more influence over my own creative work and who is held with deep respect locally and internationally.

July was a hectic time, putting together a proposal, modifying and editing – there’s always a lot of ideas at the early stages of a project. It’s a case of sifting and sifting until finally the strongest idea emerges, and even then this has to be held in suspension because there can always be another twist, a change in direction and the idea continues to evolve and change.

Creative partnership – Orla Stevens

I was lucky to be directed towards Orla by mutual friend Katherine Wren. Unknown to me, I had already been in the same room with Orla during a performance at the Stromness Town Hall, but we had missed being introduced. It was a relief to find a partner for the project, and one who already had a love of Orkney and a wide variety of skills. Not only that but it quickly became apparent that Orla was also enthusiastic about trying new things.

This combination of curiosity and focus allowed our ideas to move and grow together, and allowed some to be left behind as impractical dreams, while others matured and grew. The layers of discussion began to gather into more concrete ideas, but at regular intervals a real spinner of an idea would set things tumbling about again.

Eventually the ideas would settle and the process of sifting and more careful consideration proceed. Working with a commissioning panel was new for me, and the process of submitting and clarifying ideas developed in collaboration not just with Orla but also Emma Gee (Arts Development Officer for OIC) and her team. It’s not quite the same as a negotiation, but there are elements that are similar. Having to present ideas to a panel requires that they are clear and that their execution can be demonstrated. It would be an understatement to say that it focuses the mind.

Developing ideas

Several ideas remained constant, that of connecting with the maritime heritage of Stromness and also of including material in the artwork that was contemporary with George Mackay Brown’s life.

By the end of the summer our creative partnership was established and we were having regular meetings over zoom. This felt very normal after recent experiences and knowing Orla had already been all around Orkney meant I could trust she had a keen awareness of what a special place it was and why George Mackay Brown’s writing is so rooted in the unique environment and way of life that surrounded him.

The process of revising and the proposal for the commission was helpful in understanding more fully the scope of where we could take things, the jumping off points for discussion.

I was keen to begin some community engagement work and began contacting local schools and organisations. There were so many options and possibilities from the theme ‘Travellers’ that it became clear that focusing on a small number of poems in greater depth might be more rewarding.

From George’s own words…

I’d always felt that beyond the idea of George Mackay Brown’s writing preserving a vision of Orkney beneath a bell jar did not represent his concerns for the wider world. A place he did not venture into with regularity but whose events did concern him greatly. I see in his work a great sense of compassion for the difficult lives that others face. Beyond the mystical writings inspired by St Magnus and the earthy concerns of growing life from the soil there is a wide and generous appreciation of the unique struggles that form the substance of every life.

A poem that embodies this compassionate concern is To the Tibetan Refugees. It captures a moment in historical time and yet also a timeless sorrow and hardship of the displaced and the duty to provide warm welcome and furnish each person with the physical and spiritual support that they require.

I chose this poem and two others that related to the theme of travellers that I hoped would be interesting to use as a basis for workshops with students. In the end I selected ‘The Friend’ and ‘Waters’. There’s so many references in ‘Waters’ but there’s no need to understand all of them to enjoy the poem and the sense of travel that enters into everyone’s life stories.

Stromness harbour, Gabrielle Barnby,

Creative engagement – Kirkwall Grammar School

I began to develop workshops around these poems, although there was the hope of encouraging the students to write something creative I also wanted to give them an opportunity to reflect on their own journeys, the things that gave them a sense of welcome and the challenges that they faced. It wasn’t about dissecting the poems, but finding starting points and then developing ideas in a personal way.

I’ve worked with a variety of age groups creatively, but I would say that it feels more challenging in a school setting where there’s a lot of associations and expectations already in place. It was very rewarding to see the growth in their curiosity in exploring ideas in a new way and I’m delighted with the contributions that began to appear during the autumn.

Community engagement – Orkney Historic Boat Society

The second group I began to get to know was a far greater step outside of my comfort zone. I had never been inside a boat shed before and had been anticipating the event with excitement, not just for myself but to be able to introduce Orla when she arrived in Orkney during October.

It was a real privilege to get be shown around Ian Richardson’s boat shed and to see the restoration work going on at the Point of Ness shed in Stromness. I was welcomed with such genuine warmth, and generosity especially since I hardly know one end of a boat from another.

Seeing the enthusiasm and skills that the OHBS volunteers employed in their renovation work was truly inspiring. The care was on the surface to the physical fabric of the boat, but beyond that it was also a care for the techniques being used, for the stories being re-told and preserved, for the provenance of the boats that had been renovated and were waiting patiently for their turn. Pragmatic, patient and highly skilled so much would be lost without them.

I had hoped to simply observe and perhaps find some inspiration among their company for writing. It occurred to me that some of the items that had been laid aside as too poor to be renovated and whose story was so long lost that they might find a new life as part of our artwork. I took a couple of photographs to keep Orla up to date – and an idea began to grow about how the theme of travellers and the maritime heritage of Stromness could be embodied physically in our creative work.

By the time Orla arrived in October we had discussed with OHBS whether there would be any maritime items that would never be restored that we could use in the project. To our delight we received a positive reply…

The perfect site?

The wind has been high for the past three days resulting in a feeling of prolonged Yuletide celebrations. In fact I feel more in the mood for Christmas now than a month ago. Perhaps like many countries in Europe we should be celebrating the Epiphany rather than sending our children back to school and denuding the house of its cheerful decoration. I am in the mood for nothing except the smallest tasks and find myself chasing up scraps on information about the new idea for a resting place for this artwork. The disused play park in the heart of Faravel, Stromness. I learn from the internet that it is a place of ancient caves in France where pre-historic painting were found – but of course I knew this already. Hidden deep inside some learning from my undergraduate course where the rudiments of human evolution were impressed upon us. There of images of fabrics and persons of minor note with the surname Faravel. Then I pick up a more local trail. A reference to returning to Faravel in Joanna Ramsay’s touching memoir of George Mackay Brown The Seed Beneath the Snow. How I long for the brightness of snow on a day as dreicht as today! I am led closer to George Mackay Brown and find a reference to the name Faravel in his collection of writings Letters from Hamnavoe. He describes his initial surprise at the name being chosen for the new housing scheme behind Mayburn Place. However, on finding that Dr Hugh Marwick suggests an Old Norse origin for the word from vartha-fjall, meaning “beacon hill” he warms to the name and its association with a place that warned the community of any oncoming danger, but more than that, a place used for carnival and celebration in the ‘midsummer fire festivals.’ It is a pleasing thought, and perhaps an indication that this will become renewed place of joyous celebration.

Just as the materials of the artwork are renewed might it also provide the focus of further renewal in this currently forgotten space?

George again…

To return to Faravel. Not many people, I imagine will dispute with the late Dr Hugh Marwick about Orkney place names. This is what he has to say, in Birsay Place Names, about the name Farafield: ‘Origin uncertain but discussed in OFN (Orkney Farm Names). Possibly an Old Norse vartha-fjall, “beacon hill”…’

If that is so, then the hill on which our new housing scheme stands has its summit at ‘the Look-out’ or ‘the Gun’. There the fires were list to warn the people that a hostile fleet was approaching: and more joyously, for the midsummer fire festivals.’

From Letters from Hamnavoe, George Mackay Brown, pp11-12.

Finding a safe haven…

It is nearly the end of January, e-mails have been whizzing to and fro about the proposed site at Faravel. It is great to be in communication with other groups passionate about community spaces. It’s a process of information gathering (Will planning permission be needed? How long will this take?) and relationship building. I feel that there are both advantages and disadvantages to not being from Orkney. Although I have been here over ten years, I have not been here for ten generations! I suppose this gives me a different perspective, different enthusiasms, but it also means a lot of legwork, finding out about things that would otherwise be embedded in that in knowledge of place that comes from having been born and raised within its historical fold.

In amongst all these discussions, I have shipped a boathook down to Orla and today and she is painting away. I am also expecting delivery of the gabions which gives the structure its integrity, they are coming from Wiltshire to Edinburgh and then collected and brought over to Orkney by a local deliver firm. I also want to get back to the writing I did earlier in the project, see what can be polished up and presented with the physical artwork.

Work in progress - GMB centenary installation

Going before the committee

I have been looking through the Stromness Place Plan and preparing a presentation for the Stromness Community Council. The document gives a vision for the future of Stromness, the potential projects that could be developed to benefit the community. It has great recommendations for Faravel, ‘revive as an intergenerational outdoor space for community use such as small events and relaxation.’  I love this idea, but I also see the implications for Faravel in terms of access and landscaping. The large quantity of steps make it a challenge to access and although it is very close to the museum for someone with a buggy or wheelchair it might as well be a hundred miles away. I go on and develop my presentation, adding graphics prepared by Orla, the poems that gave us inspiration and photographs of the proposed site. The committee meets at the end of the month and I want them to have as much information as possible to make a decision. In the mean time the gabions are paid for and delivery has been arranged for the first week in February. I can’t wait to see them and try putting them together.


Gabions - GMB installation

A new suggestion

The community council has come back with a suggestion for the site of the piece – the George Mackay Brown Memorial Garden. The location is perfect. It is to the south end of Stromness past the canon and towards the golf course. There is a wonderful newly designed and renovated play park a stone’s throw away and the views over to Stromness are iconic. I made a visit to the garden with the committee chair on Sunday afternoon and discussed possibilities. There is great access. The garden was a millennium project and is carefully planted with elegant yet very hardy plants. There are already a number of benches and a carved stone that welcomes the visitor using the words of George Mackay Brown to ‘The haven inside the bay.’  It’s clear that the community council would like to see the place used for a greater variety of events and attract new volunteers. Locating the piece inside the garden would provide new focus – perhaps for musical performances and theatre. I’m super keep on the idea and begin to think about how the piece might look. More discussions to be had, but this feels the right place.

GMB memorial garden - early site for installation

The George Mackay Brown Memorial Garden – getting the go ahead

It’s time to prepare an updated presentation to Stromness Community Council for their next meeting in mid-March. In the meanwhile, Orla is completing the final coats of varnish on the nautical items and I feel we’re gaining momentum towards being ready to instal the piece. The questions remains – where exactly? I go through my presentation again, go back to the garden and think about how things will look, measure and assess the flatness of the ground. Waiting for the meeting to happen weighs on my mind. I carry on ordering the materials that we will need, stone (lots of it) timber, fixings and fastenings. I also begin to work on a sign that will go on the artwork and get in touch with Piers Cain the secretary of Orkney Arts Society. A pamphlet for a self-guided walk ‘The GMB Trail’ has been in preparation and I’m keen that the installation will be included. The trouble is that the deadline is the week before the community council meets. Piers is fortunately very patient and will wait until we hear the decision from the meeting. The decision is….yes! There’s huge relief and congratulations all round from the commissioning panel.

Work in progress - gabions and bench top - GMB art installation

Installation deadline!

Success in meeting one deadline for the George Mackay Brown Trail pamphlet is replaced by renewed pressure to get the piece completed and installed in time for the launch of the trail. Orla has packaged up the completed embellished nautical pieces donated by OHBS but there will be a delay before the are collected and delivered to Orkney. The end of the school term is getting close as well and the whole family is needing a change of scene. The days tick past and as much preparation as possible is done and Orla is unable to make it up to Orkney for installation as planned. A willing hand is leant on construction by my partner and it feels like we are making progress. The evening before we go on holiday the long awaited package from Orla arrives and we can begin a mock up in the garage in readiness for installation in the garden. With a sinking heart I realise I will not be in Orkney for the 12th April launch ‘A peedie drift of sand through the hourglass‘. When I return it will be all hands on deck and a prayer for good weather so we can go ahead.

GMB art installation - preparation
GMB art installation - preparation

The George Mackay Brown Trail

In the end more than good weather is needed for installation – the proper insurance must be in place. Thanks to the tireless work of Emma Gee this was obtained with a quick turnaround and I thought we were ready, but there was still another turn in the road for the positioning of the piece. The memorial garden is cared for by a number of volunteers and at the last minute a query about the plans for the garden installation was politely posed. It was a timely and ultimately hugely beneficial suggestion that we install the piece not to the right side of the path, but in the corner of the garden overlooking the sea. Wouldn’t it be better seen then? And the maintenance be easier? It was a time for another meeting at the garden with the volunteers. Dusk was setting, and a haar blowing in as we discussed the pros and cons. Yes – it was a better place. A quick decision was made. It was now or never. There were only three days until the inaugural George Mackay Brown Trail walk and I so wanted the piece to be ready and waiting. The bright sun that greeted me as I woke up the next mind. Despite other commitments, today would be the day. It would take as long as it took. It was glorious working in the sunshine, putting our construction plan into action and solving things as we went along. After a very long and varied day, it was done. I owe a lot to the patience of my family. The deadline would be met with one day to spare!

GMB garden installation
GMB garden installation

Travellers – home at last

It was a fantastic feeling to arrive on 23rd April for the inaugural George Mackay Brown Trail walk, and to know that number 8 on the trail was actually in place. It was nerve-wracking to. I expect it will be for some time. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, which I am sure they will give. I love its brightness, its attempt to defy the horizontal – a high risk venture for anything in Orkney. I love the way it brings together George Mackay Brown’s original text and new writing from students at Kirkwall Grammar School, I love the way it welcomes people and draws them along the same walk George did himself, to the same spot where he sat himself to look over the sea. There have been many twists and turns in this collaboration, and finding exactly the right spot came at exactly the right moment. I hope that ‘Travellers’ will be a place of welcome and reflection, and inspire more community events in the garden in years to come.

GMB art installation, Gabrielle Barnby, Orla Stevens, Stromness, Orkney

Legacy and celebration

There are plans to celebrate the installation of ‘Travellers’ in June of this year, and that further community events will take place in the memorial garden.

New poetry inspired by collaboration

George Mackay Brown Trail

Orkney Islands Council – Arts, Museums and Heritage

George Mackay Brown Fellowship

George Mackay Brown Trail Guide

GMB Trail, Gabrielle Barnby, Stromness, Orkney

However far you have journeyed, may you find peace and friendship here.

Travellers, artwork, Stromness, by the sea, Gabrielle Barnby, Orla Stevens, George Mackay Brown
GMB 'Travellers' art installation plaque - Stromness
Gabrielle Barnby